State vs. Federal Protection of Public Lands

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(North Dakota Badlands)

All signs indicate that the Trump Administration is poised to shrink the size of Bear Ears National Monument.  Opponents of the monument have offered a variety of reasons for their opposition but one general point of hostility from them is that they believe public lands are better protected at the state level rather than having the federal government manage them.  This is mostly just a smoke screen for industry to exploit the land for maximum profit while leaving the local communities to clean up their mess.  The fact is most states are unable and unwilling to provide the proper protection for public lands that are necessary for equitable enjoyment of them for generations to come.

The inadequacy of state protection of public lands compared to the protection offered by the federal government is on display in this great article published by the High Country News.  The piece details the difference in protection from fossil fuel extraction given to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Little Missouri State Park.  Both parks are in the North Dakota Badlands and are near the Bakken oil fields.  The author, Emily Guerin, moved to North Dakota to cover the oil boom and would often visit both parks.  She notes that the Badlands provided a respite to the manic frenzy of the oil boom but that the two parks offered distinctly different experiences even though they are right next to each other:

“The Badlands became an escape for me, too: On its public lands I could retreat from the oilfield’s manic energy and the monotonous squares of wheat and sunflowers. Grassy plateaus — the largest remaining swaths of native short- grass prairie — gave way to wildly eroded buttes, ridges and coulees that were bushy with juniper and aspen. Along the undeveloped Little Missouri River plain, the cottonwood lowlands meandered for miles. Out here, I could breathe more deeply.  During my two years in North Dakota, I regularly visited two parts of the Badlands: Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Little Missouri State Park. Although they encompass nearly identical terrain, the parks feel distinctly different. The national park is an oasis from the oil boom. Little Missouri State Park, meanwhile, has been engulfed by it. There are even oil wells within park boundaries.”

Its not just Guerin who finds oil production occurring in the state park unacceptable but a fair amount of potential visitors do as well:

“Visitation to the state park has fallen by almost a third since the oil boom began, in 2007. At Theodore Roosevelt National Park, by contrast, where officials have worked to shelter the park from the boom, there were 65 percent more visitors in 2016 than in 2007.”

The article goes on to detail how states like North Dakota are not set up to serve the public in their protection of public lands but rather to serve the interest of industry in the exploitation of these lands.

“the fate of Little Missouri State Park was sealed on Dec. 20, 2011, in the basement of the State Capitol in Bismarck. There, three men — then-Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring — agreed to allow ConocoPhillips to extract up to 43 million barrels of oil from land in and around the state park. The three elected officials sit on the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which regulates the oil industry. They also accept campaign contributions from the companies they regulate.  At the meeting, the commission discussed an unusual arrangement that would allow ConocoPhillips to drill wells wherever it wanted inside a 50-mile area in and around the park, instead of within two-square-mile units, as the state usually required. This arrangement, state oil and gas staff said, would allow the company to cluster its wells, minimizing the number inside the park while also allowing it to extract even more oil from the rugged terrain. One option not discussed at the meeting was leaving the park alone — whether it might be too special to drill.”

Stenehjem tried to offer more protection for the park but once his oil donor masters caught wind of it he resumed his position as a subservient lapdog.

“Two years later, though, Stenehjem brought up that issue with what he called his “extraordinary places” proposal. It came after a state parks employee was driving around Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhart Ranch, now part of the national park, and noticed flags in the ground. The oil company XTO had staked out a well pad about 100 feet from the park’s border. The public outcry was fierce, and Stenehjem was surprised. So he proposed creating a buffer zone around 18 “extraordinary” places in western North Dakota, including Little Missouri State Park, where drilling permit applications on private or public lands would undergo extra review. “There are some areas we need to let everybody know we are paying particular attention to,” he told me in July 2014. Oil companies, however, hated the idea and responded forcefully. “For the moment, Continental Resources remains committed to North Dakota, but a sustained commitment will depend largely upon the policy decisions being  made today,” Harold Hamm, CEO of one of the largest oil companies in the Bakken and a major political donor, threatened in a letter. “The Bakken is not the only attractive play in America.”

If you care about public lands in the U.S. you should read the whole thing

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